Our final destination on a nine-day visit to Myanmar is Inle Lake, in Shan State, in the east of the country. It’s a forty minute flight from Nyaung U in Bagan to the delightfully named Heho, and away we go on a forty-five minute drive from Heho to the lake itself.
And in this bucolic setting it is immediately apparent that we have entered yet another realm of this multi-faceted country. One where the long established ways of life continue. Where local traditions and local industries go on as they have for centuries.
The drive from Heho takes us over a small mountain range, down a narrow twisting mountain road, and onto a flat plain surrounding the lake. We’re on a single-lane, barely-tarmac-ed road, flanked by bright orange Flame-of-the-Forest trees, getting stuck behind ox-drawn carts and ancient tractors with exposed engines, pausing for pye-dogs, cows and kids to meander nonchalantly across the road. It’s hot and dusty, very rural, and I love it. It’s one of those journeys that could just happily go on forever.
Not surprisingly life around here centres around the vast lake, fringed by marshes and dotted with stilt houses. For although Inle Lake is 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide, it has a depth of just 7 feet during the dry season and 12 feet during the wet. So a boat is arranged and before you know it we’re powering off down the lake on a long, slender vessel with a thumping outboard on the back. I’d expected to be sitting on a bum board having the crap shaken out of me, but we’ve each a little throne complete with comfy cushions. It’s really quite stylish.
After an hour or so thudding down the lake we reach the village of Ywama. One of the largest in the area, it was the first to be developed for tourism, and is subsequently the busiest. The large Hpaung Daw U Pagoda looks so shiny and modern to be quite off-putting. The smaller village of In Phaw Khone appears far more authentic.
Obviously tourism provides some much-needed revenue for the area, but in many respects the traditional way of life goes on. Most of the local Intha people live in simple houses of wood and woven bamboo built on stilts hovering above the shallow lake. Vegetables and fruit are grown in large gardens of weeds anchored to bamboo poles, that float on the surface of the lake, rising and falling rhythmically with the ebb and flow of the lake. In the weaving workshops the ladies work away on ancient looms, sliding shuttles back and forth with a rhythmic clackety-clack.
The stilt houses, floating gardens and weaving workshops have all become tourist attractions in themselves. As have the Intha fishermen, who have a unique way of paddling their flat-bottomed canoes with one leg wrapped around the oar. It’s one of the quintessential images of Burma and one that, at the time, graces the front cover of the Lonely Planet. In fact I think we found the same fisherman, who clearly makes more money posing for tourist photos than he does fishing.
Just south of Ywama village, the boat turns west into a narrow, winding channel that threads its way through the tall reeds of the marshes. As it leaves the marshes and the surrounding jungle becomes denser and heavier all the time, it all becomes a bit Apocalypse Now. That’s a trite reference but a damned sight easier than trying to describe it myself. After thirty minutes of expecting Marlon Brando to emerge from the foliage, we instead arrive at the village of Inthein.
At first sight Inthein appears to have sold its soul to the tourist dollar, but instead turns out to be a deliciously curious mix. Whilst it clearly welcomes the visitors’ money, village life goes on oblivious. The river is a hive of activity with people bathing, doing the laundry, hanging out, kids swimming. It’s a timeless scene of Burmese village life – perhaps without the feller who is washing his motorbike in the river or the rock group who are setting up on a shingle bank…in the middle of the river.
The market is interesting, a mix of stalls selling tourist tat, old trinkets, everyday consumables, a barbers. If I wasn’t bald as a coot I really would have given it a go. And dozing away in the dirt, with his spiky collar on, is the oddest looking mongrel imaginable. He’s a sweet-looking feller but he looks more leopard than canine. His DNA – and his parentage – must be a scientific marvel.
No Burmese village would be complete without some spirituality and up a long covered walkway on a hill above the village is Shwe Inthein Paya, a tightly packed mass of over a thousand small stupas – or zedis – with their chimes tinkling musically in the breeze.
At the north end of Inle Lake is the biggest village in the area, Nyaungshwe. Now Nyaungshwe might be interesting if you’re staying there and have time to get to know the place, and it does have quite a backpacker vibe to the place with lots of budget restaurants and hostels, but as a tourist stopping by for an hour, it’s, well, missable.
Returning to the resort after our second day on the lake and I realise that I’ve left my hat on the boat. My favourite hat. The one hat, found in Spitalfields market in London, that after several other attempts met my rather fussy preferences. And now it’s gone.
So those were our Burmese Days. It’s a lovely country, blessed with the beauty of the Irrawaddy River and Inle Lake, and rich in religious history in Bagan and the thousands of other religious monuments. However it has got to where it is – an ancient and devout civilisation, through colonialism, and on to a military dictatorship – it is just so full of oddities, idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, quirks, foibles, and every other synonym that Roget can throw at you, it is absolutely, enchantingly, charming.
The people are sweetness personified – polite, friendly, humble, curious and a pleasure to meet. In a nondescript restaurant in Inle Lake, we’d asked to borrow a wine glass on the promise that we’d return it tomorrow. Like most Burmese we met the staff were sweet, friendly, helpful, keen to practice their English, perhaps a little nervous, and genuinely out to please. Our wish was easily granted. And we did of course return the wine glass, and enjoy their hospitality – and the best food we had in Burma – twice in two days. You can only hope that there is a brighter future for the people of Burma than the one they have been denied over the past sixty years.
In nine days – and five Travel Tales – in Myanmar we’ve not even tickled, let alone scratched, the surface of Burma’s politics, being shielded as we are on a cushion of relative affluence. We’ve had no conversations with people which have broached the subject or explored attitudes towards freedom and democracy, and suppression. Read Emma Larkin’s excellent Finding George Orwell in Burma or Rory McLean’s Under The Dragon, and you’ll get a feel for the oppression under which the Burmese people live. The lack of economic development is one cause worth attention; democracy and freedom of speech is another; but the human rights abuses, torture and murder are something quite different altogether.
My hat incidentally, was awaiting collection when we got down to the hotel reception in the morning. The lady on reception had phoned the boat owner, found the hat, and someone brought it the five miles from Nyaungshwe to our hotel, before I’d even got up.